Reissue releases beg numerous questions:
First, are the repackaged recordings already available on CD, and of
equal production quality? If so, does the reissue bundle available material
in a way that will make an artist’s work more accessible, particularly
to new listeners? Also, regardless of availability, are the recordings
and the performances they capture worth having in the first place? Or
are they being reissued because it is quick, easy and inexpensive for
record companies to repackage material from their vaults?
Rounder Records has launched its
"Bullseye Blues Basics" reissue series with four of the finest,
most authentic artists in the history of the blues — Clarence "Gatemouth"
Brown, the late J.B. Hutto, the late Johnny Copeland and the very much
alive Robert Jr. Lockwood — and reprises recordings each made for Rounder
(in Hutto’s case, Rounder’s Varrick label) in the 1980s.
Of the initial four releases in
the series, three feature material previously unavailable on CD. Lockwood’s
Just the Blues is derived from the Rounder LPs Hangin’ On
(1980) and Mister Blues Is Back to Stay (1981). Both were collaborations
with the late Johnny Shines, whose deeply-rooted acoustic Delta blues
focus struck an ideal balance with Lockwood’s jazzier tendencies, and
while Shines appears on seven of the 12 cuts here, his presence is greatly
diminished due to the performances not included — particularly when
compared to the original Hangin’ On album. That’s a shame, because
Hangin’ On — and Mister Blues, for that matter — is well
worthy of reissue, intact, in the compact disk format.
The title of the Lockwood compilation
is ironic, too, because he is less strictly a blues musician than any
of the other artists featured here (Gatemouth Brown’s "don’t call
me a bluesman" protestations notwithstanding). Lockwood — who was
65 and 66 at the time of these recordings — delivers his blues with
a heaping dose of uniquely personal jazz sensibility, frequently featuring
his 12-string guitar with the backing of a full, swinging horn section.
For evidence, visit "Hangin’ On" or "Here It Is, Brother."
Lockwood’s bluest moments here are with Shines in an acoustic duet setting,
as on "Mean Mistreater."
That said, Just the Blues
is a diverse, creative set of music that grooves and grooves and grooves.
This material was long overdue for CD release and is a real pleasure
to listen to.
J.B. Hutto’s Rock With Me Tonight
repackages 1983 recordings originally released on the Varrick label
as Slippin’ and Slidin’ (previously available only on cassette)
and adds two unreleased cuts. Hutto, a South Carolina native but a Chicago
resident for most of his life, was a noteworthy electric slide guitarist
from the Elmore James school. He was a couple notches below fellow Windy
City slidemaster Hound Dog Taylor on the reckless abandon scale, but
Hutto was an effective and deeply moving entertainer nonetheless. (In
fact, after Taylor’s death Hutto toured with Hound Dog’s band, the Houserockers,
and recorded the highly-regarded Live 1977 album issued on the
Wolf label in Europe.)
Rock With Me Tonight for
the most part lives up to the promise of its title. Hutto rocks hard
on the Elmore-styled cover of Fenton Robinson’s "Somebody Loan
Me a Dime" and the R&B-flavored "Black’s Ball" and
"Soul Lover," the latter two featuring the three-man Roomful
of Blues reeds in tasteful support. Ron Levy also makes a guest appearance
on piano. But the album suffers from occasional mundane, pedestrian
moments, like the instrumental "New Hawk Walk."
Remarkably, given the vigor of these
recordings, Hutto died from cancer only three months after they were
completed. He was 57.
Johnny Copeland’s Honky Tonkin’
compiles cuts from several Rounder releases: Copeland Special
(1981), Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat (1982), Texas Twister
(1983), Bringin’ It All Back Home (1985) and Boom Boom
Copeland is associated with Texas
and achieved his professional success after moving to New York in 1975,
but his Louisiana roots are evident here too on "Make My Home Where
I Hang My Hat." Copeland delves into a deeper set of roots with
the thoroughly percussive "Kasavubu," the lone cut from the
Bringin’ It All Back Home album which Copeland recorded in Africa
with musicians from the Congo.
Copeland makes effective use of
horns to drive his material, but it’s his dramatic vocal performances
on Honky Tonkin’ that will capture the listener’s attention.
The man could sing! And his vocal intensity was fully captured in these
1980s-era recordings before diminishing health could take its toll on
his capacity as a vocalist. Copeland died in 1997 at age 60 from complications
following his eighth heart surgery.
Gatemouth Brown’s Okie Dokie
Stomp repackages cuts from the Rounder releases Alright Again!
(1981), One More Mile (1983) and Real Life (1986), adding
one live cut from a 1982 festival in Switzerland that was previously
issued on the Justice Records release Blues for the Homeless.
Given that all of the aforementioned Rounder titles are still available
on CD, Okie Dokie Stomp derives its value as a tasty sampler
of Brown’s Rounder material.
As much as Brown might resist the
term "blues" in describing his musical persona, that’s mostly
what you’ll hear on Okie Dokie Stomp — blues, flavored
with swing and jazz. Gate’s horn arrangements are an integral part of
his musical attack, not just garnish or window dressing, and they frame
his understated, T-Bone Walker-flavored guitar work to make a cohesive
ensemble statement on tracks like the instrumental title tune and the
vocal cover of Albert Collins’ classic "Frosty."
Okie Dokie Stomp also includes
a sampling of Gatemouth’s violin on the bayou barn-dance groove "Sunrise
Cajun Style," and spotlights his harmonica on "The Drifter,"
a 10-minute workout originally issued on Blues for the Homeless.
The bottom line: There’s not a bad
note on any of these four CDs. The Lockwood release merits particular
attention because its selections had been unavailable in any format
for years. If you’re starting from scratch with these artists or have
to choose among these particular reissues, I’d rate them, purely for
enjoyment purposes, as follows: (1) Brown, (2) Lockwood, (3) Copeland
and (4) Hutto. Good stuff all around, and the Bullseye reissue producers
promise "more to come."
— Bryan Powell